What is Social Media?
Social media has become more than a platform to share funny cat videos or keeping in touch with distant relatives. Social media is a digital technology that mimics real life. It is a tool people and organizations use to create online personalities, instantaneously communicate with others, create and share content, and collect data about individuals through these interactions.
The commonplace definition of technology is that it is a means to an end, an instrument to fulfill human needs. Humans desire connection, and social media is a technological tool for them to do just that. However, German Philosopher, Martin Heidegger, explores the root of technology, techne, the skill to make or do something, but he also notes that techne "belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic" (Heidegger 4). To solve our desire for interaction across great physical distances, we developed social media (poiesis). This technology digitized our interactions and thereby altered our offline interactions (techne). Social media possess both poiesis and techne meaning it can reveal.
Technology reveals what we did not know before. Heidegger writes, "Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where altheia, truth happens" (4). Therefore, the essence of technology is to reveal the truth. Social media is a technology, which reveals a fractured truth. It reveals the life a person or organization wants others to believe is true. Social media strays further away from its original purpose (networking and interacting) toward manipulating and mimicking reality. Professor and author Donna Haraway argue, "The realities of modern life happen to include a relationship between people and technology so intimate that it's no longer possible to tell where we end and machines begin" (Haraway cited in Kunzru). However, how much of our online personality is authentic to our offline selves?
While some influencers and corporations are refusing digital means to re-touch images, this does not stop people from choosing to post their "picture-perfect" moments. These snapshots are a narrow range of the totality of the human experience. People feel a range of positive and negative emotions, yet this phenomenon of selectively posting the positive has led to people comparing themselves. However, they compare themselves to a distorted reality, to a perfectly constructed series of highlights from someone else's life—perhaps even a person one has never met offline.
Some argue social media is an extension of our beings. However, it seems our online identity reflects the person we think our friends, family, and peers should see instead of our true selves. Canadian Philosopher Andrew Feenberg said, "When you choose to use technology, you do not simply render your existing way of life more efficient, you choose a different way of life" (7). The truth social media reveals are that humans may be addicted to external validation. Thus, people create posts, evoking emotional responses, increasing the number of interactions with the post, and decreasing meaningful connections. People turn to social media to escape their offline reality, which is a rhetorical choice social media app developers built into their platform and businesses profit from.
Many companies develop technology in isolation from the community, which centralizes power to preserve existing hierarchical relations between the inventor and the public. Organizations leverage the data collected from social media users to predict behaviors and create more effective target marketing campaigns. To what extent does social media serve the public interest? What values does social media reinforce intentionally and unintentionally? Feenberg argues the answer to these questions lies in the Critical Theory of Technology. He writes:
The values embodied in technology are socially specific and are not adequately
represented by such abstractions as efficiency or control. Technology frames not just
one way of life but many different possible ways of life, each of which reflects different
choices of design and different extensions of technological mediation (Feenberg 9).
His theory promotes the democratization of technology and social media, decentralizing control and enabling fairer technology design. Thus, a relationship exists between social media posts and rhetoric, and the rhetoric social media makes by existing as a platform.
People can use rhetoric as a framework to analyze individuals and organization's social media posts. Patterns and trends exist across the image/video content online profiles feature. The writing and textual components accompanying the visual rhetoric contribute to the overall narrative the profile tries to get audience members to think about them. Using Feenberg's framework of the Critical Theory of Technology, social media is a product of the context people created it in. Who made the post? Why was it made? What was its intended impact? These values and rhetoric shape social media content, and rhetorical practices shape how these values get reinforced. Despite Feenberg's emergent ideology surrounding democratizing technology, developers will first need to alter the design and algorithms influencing how people experience social media.
Author and game designer Ian Bogost introduced the theory of procedural rhetoric in his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. Instead of spoken or written words, Bogost argues that procedural rhetoric persuades users through running processes and interactivity. The interactive nature of social media makes procedural arguments deeming what is considered relevant, increasing the importance of immediate gratification, and addicting people to social media by pairing the infinite scroll with variable-ratio reinforcement.
The visually stimulating social media content makes a procedural argument that the more striking and focused the media is, the more likely it will influence a person's decision to engage with the content. Bogost quotes Charles A. Hill and writes, "images are more "vivid" than text or speech, and therefore they are more easily manipulated toward visceral responses" (22). Looking at attractive or entertaining content activates the brain and releases dopamine. For social media apps to remain functional, they want to serve their users the content they want to see. They utilize algorithms to track and gather user's past preferences. However, this process limits the scope of available content users will see on the platform. These algorithms determine and repeat what it thinks is relevant to its users without considering what other subject matter may be appropriate in the future. Users interact with relevant content on social media resulting in the creators accumulating quantitative value and associating it with their self-worth.
Influencers and companies may grow arrogant due to the number of subscribers, friends, likes, followers, or comments their online personality has. This tendency harkens back to the concerns Heidegger expressed about authenticity and the riches one builds within their life. These treasures are not material possessions but rather encompass one's inherent wisdom, courage, and compassion, and the ability to live with integrity and respect for oneself and others. If social media's original intentions were to form connections, how many meaningful connections are the online personalities creating with their “followers” or “subscribers”?
Bogost writes, "Procedural rhetoric is a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models" (Bogost 29). Therefore, when creators receive notifications when people interact with their content, the procedural argument is that it triggers a person’s desire for external validation, immediate gratification, and gain. The influencers’ or corporations’ desire for connection with their audience lessens as their craving for status and admiration increases. Moreover, the infinite scroll feature coupled with variable-ratio reinforcement shifts the value of meaningful conversation toward finding the next amusing content.
Social media apps design their interface's size to accommodate more space for visually appealing content. It usually displays one profile's content at a time, which sparks the user's curiosity to see what will be next due to the infinite scroll. This technique loads content automatically at the bottom, giving the appearance of endless possibilities. According to Bogost, "Procedural representations are often (but not always) interactive; they rely on user interaction as a mediator, something static and moving images cannot claim to do" (Bogost 35). In addition to content seeming unlimited on social media, people engage in mindless swiping for a chance to receive a short burst of dopamine from an eye-catching post. However, this positive response occurs after an unpredictable number of swipes known as variable-ratio reinforcement. The content on social media seems unlimited, causing users to continue searching for another post to activate the same response. App design and algorithms influence people's behavior and self-image, making social media a more powerful tool than mere communication.
The public’s values are not always built into the technology they use. Social media has evolved to be more than just a communication tool. It has become an effective marketing platform, a data analytics tool, and a news source with the power to influence mass audiences for personal gain, financial or otherwise. Both social media posts and the platforms themselves are imbued with rhetoric. People continuously see the highlights of one's life over the mundane or low moments, and social networks do not reflect natural conversations or deeper interactions. But will we suddenly become genuine versions of ourselves by detaching from social media? Although these platforms may cater to those who control the design process, new relationships between technology and society are forming, resulting in new designs, uses, and processes. It comes down to individual users questioning social media and holding companies accountable with the hope of revealing the truth despite what seems like an endless effort to conceal it.